Part 1: The Rookie
I was a Thailand rookie. My flight from Sydney arrived in steamy Bangkok around 11pm. Being my first trip to Bangkok or Asia in general, I timidly booked a hotel next to the airport. Eager to get my first bite of authentic Thai food I stepped out on to busy multi-lane highway. It was a dusty stretch of road dotted with a few restaurants containing outdoor cooking arrangements covered by bamboo roofs, there were locals sitting on low stools sipping condensation coated beers and bored looking waitresses lounging around. I selected a restaurant at random and was ushered to a long wooden bench by a gaggle of now excited waitresses.
An English menu was dusted off and thrust towards me with half a dozen Thai smiles eagerly awaiting my choice. Feeling under pressure I quickly chose a pork noodle dish costing around 40 baht ($1.50) and of course a Singha beer. My beer arrived promptly and immediately began to perspire. I took a sip and surveyed this odd scene around me. Cars recklessly whizzed past on the bouncy road, the locals eyed me over their beers and a string of lights between two bamboo dwellings cast a warm yellow glow over the scene.
After a while, the gaggle of waitresses came back and awkwardly explained through assorted hand gestures that my dish was unavailable. I quickly flipped open the menu, spotted a delicious sounding tamarind prawn dish. Doing my first mental exchange rate conversion from 300 baht to $10AUD and thinking to myself “yeah that’s a reasonable price for a Thai dish in Australia”, I indicated my choice. The half dozen exchanged confused looks and kept exclaiming “300 baht!” To which I firmly agreed.
After an extended period of time and a few more perspiring beers, the six proudly returned with this:
I had accidentally ordered a platter of king prawns meant for sharing between family or friends. Slightly embarrassed, I plucked up the first juicy tamarind and crispy shallot covered prawn and took a bite. I was in love. This accidental dish chosen from a random dusty roadside restaurant near the airport was the best Thai food I had ever eaten.
Part 2: The Tourist
I was a Thailand tourist. On my next journey to the land of smiles I was lucky enough to be accompanied by my good Thai friend from Sydney and his girlfriend who lived in Bangkok. We spent a few days in Bangkok eating our way the through various neighbourhoods of the city of angels (Bangkok has the longest name of any city in the world but is known in short as Krung Thep กรุงเทพ meaning the city of angels).
Wanting to get away from steamy Krung Thep for some beach relaxation, I suggested the well known tourist destination of Pattaya. I was met with polite disagreement, this was clearly not where the locals go to relax. Hua Hin was suggested, it is a similar distance away, about 3 hours by coach, and it’s where the royal family go to relax so it must be good.
Hua Hin was perfect, it had a very relaxed feel without the touristic pressure of other Thai beach towns. There were no menus in Russian, or men following me down the street convincing me of the quality of their suits, or ladies convincing me of the quality of their massages. There were long stretches of white sand beach with that enticing luke warm water, plenty of luxurious resorts to choose from and those iconic balmy night food markets.
Hua Hin being a beach town has some of the best seafood in Thailand, in fact my friends claimed that they had THE best seafood in Thailand. I excitedly laid down the challenge to show me this famed seafood so I could judge for myself. We grabbed a Tuk Tuk and headed off down dusty laneways, eventually ending up right at the beach front. I was presented with a canopy of umbrellas planted right in the sand.
On the way to our seaside table I surveyed the surrounding plates and was surprised by the simplicity, freshly grilled seafood was the star. I also noticed on my survey that I was the only western diner in the whole restaurant, a sure sign of quality food! I left the ordering to my friends and was presented with this delicious array. Fiery but refreshing prawn som tum salad, as simple mixed seafood fried rice and an indulgent crab meat curry stir fry. If you haven’t tried that crab curry before it’s time to head to your local fish markets, grab a crab or two and fire up the wok using this lovely recipe.
My eyes almost popped out of my head when this plate sized grilled prawn was delivered. It was the biggest prawn I’ve ever seen and the first bite of that juicy prawn flesh will stay with me forever. All it needed was a dip in the simply named ‘seafood sauce’ which is a mix of garlic, lime juice, fish sauce, palm sugar, coriander and of course green chilli. It’s the perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy with the smokiness of the grill.
As I sat and enjoyed my meal I surveyed the nearby sea and noticed many beaten and weathered fishing boats gently bobbing up and down. The seafood was so incredibly fresh I imagined those fishing boats pulling up right on the sand and the chefs coming over to inspect the days haul. I’ve tried fresh seafood from many famous seafood markets around the world and nothing competes with this.
Thoroughly satisfied that they had won the challenge, this surely had to be the best seafood in Thailand, we headed off to find the next adventure. So that I could one day return, I asked my friends what the name of the restaurant was, they looked at each other and debated in Thai for a while then told me it was called “Ran Ahan Talay”.
Part 3: The Seasoned Thailand Local
I was a seasoned local. A year or so later I returned to Thailand and confidently booked in a trip to my now favourite Bangkok weekend getaway beach town. I was fortunate enough to stay at the luxurious Devasom Hua Hin Resort – my review is coming soon, but for now I’ll tease you with just one image.
I was very keen to get another taste of those delicious jumbo grilled prawns. There was a slight problem, in the year between the last visit I had actually taken Thai language classes and I learnt that Ran Ahan Talay (ร้านอาหารทะเล) actually means “Seafood restaurant”. I wonder how many seafood restaurants there are in Hua Hin? The allure of the jumbo prawns was too much, so I grabbed a Tuk Tuk and optimistically asked him to take me to the Ran Ahan Talay, to which he sadly replied “Which one?” What followed was a journey around a maze of dusty laneways with me dredging up memories and suddenly directing him, turn left here, right there, go straight (super useful phrases to learn in Thai by the way)! Eventually, ready to give up, I just asked him to take me to the best seafood restaurant in town, a local place, not for tourists. Within minutes we pulled up in a cloud of dust that settled to reveal that cool umbrella canopy filled with the smokey haze of grilling seafood.
Travel is about the paths you take, planned or unplanned. This path took a few years, from the delightful accident of ordering the wrong dish at a random roadside restaurant in Bangkok to guiding a Tuk Tuk driver in his own language to the best seafood restaurant in Thailand.